COVID-19 Freezes Support for Populism, New Book Claims
DEMOS scholars analyse how populist forces handled the pandemic
Updated on April 20, 2021
Budapest, March 10—Populism thrives in crises, but European populist parties failed to turn the coronavirus pandemic into political support. Citizens channelled attention to the implications of a serious new disease instead of populists’ polarising tactics. As a result, populism lost ground during the period.
This is the crucial takeaway from a new book assessing populist parties’ strategies towards the COVID-19 crisis in eight European countries. Edited by DEMOS co-investigators Giuliano Bobba (University of Turin) and Nicolas Hubé (University of Lorraine), the book Populism and the Politicization of the COVID-19 Crisis in Europe, published by Palgrave Macmillan, came out in March in print and e-book.
The publication features chapters by DEMOS scholars from the UK, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Hungary, Czechia, and Poland. DEMOS will be releasing pre-prints of the book. All chapters are available for download below. To discuss the key findings of the project, editors Bobba and Hubé also wrote a blog post for the European Politics and Policy (EUROPP), a multidisciplinary academic blog run by the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Populism in opposition
The book provides researchers with a framework for analysing how populist forces politicise crises. The pandemic caused populist parties’ strategies to vary depending on the institutional role they played. Populist parties in opposition tried to garner public support by blaming national governments or the EU for slow or bad handling of the pandemic. Strategies that otherwise disagreed with health-protection measures amidst a pandemic would have been a political disaster.
As the authors explain, that is because the pandemic is nothing like the migration or financial crises that came before. Those, manmade, fuelled populism. The COVID-19 pandemic is “accidental”, “beyond human control”, so that the actors behind the emergence and spread of the virus could not be easily named and blamed—tactics that populist actors use.
“This is the worst condition for populists because citizens perceive the problems as real, or experience them directly, and so political responses must be rapidly implemented,” the editors Bobba and Hubé write. As a result, populist movements failed to politicise and claim ownership over the causes of the pandemic.
Populism in power
The nature of the pandemic helps explain the strategy adopted by populist leaders in power. Forced to handle the crisis without delay, they took the pandemic away from the political arena, either using science-based input to ground their decisions or portraying themselves as efficient managers. That was the choice of governing populist coalitions in Italy, Spain, Poland, Hungary, and Czechia.
The lifting of lockdown measures between May and June 2020 gave populist movements in opposition an opportunity to restart their “permanent crisis strategy”. They took aim at populist or non-populists forces in power, the EU, or migrants. Yet, with governments calling for unity to contain new infections, that strategy did not captivate. Citizens followed the news about the pandemic in real time and demanded transparency and explanations from authorities as quickly as the virus spread.
Despite the lost ground, populism is not gone. As the book shows, populism managed to be an important political actor in supporting anti-coronavirus policies. And although the crisis remains, with Europe containing a recent wave of contamination, the book suggests that a post-COVID-19 Europe might favour populist actors in opposition. They will have more room to exploit, politically, the crisis mitigation policies—even if they had been a part of the political processes that led to their adoption. Like the coronavirus, populism has proven it can adapt to thrive.
Title: Populism and the Politicization of the COVID-19 Crisis in Europe
Editors: Giuliano Bobba (University of Turin); Nicolas Hubé (University of Lorraine).
Publication date: March, 2021
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Topics: Eurpean Politics
Number of pages: 144
Download high-resolution cover here.
Chapter 1: COVID-19 and Populism: A Sui Generis Crisis. Download here.
Chapter 2: UK: Between managed moderation and far-right conspiracy theories. Download here.
Chapter 3: Spain: Is ideology back in populist discourse?. Download here.
Chapter 4: Italy: Populist in the mirror, (de)politicizing the COVID-19 from government and opposition. Download here.
Chapter 5: France: Governmental unpreparedness as a discursive opportunity for populists. Download here.
Chapter 6: Germany: The AfD’s Staggering between Reason and Resistance. Download here.
Chapter 7: Hungary: Crisis as usual - Populist governance and the pandemic. Download here.
Chapter 8: Czech Republic: Running the State like a Family Business. Download here.
Chapter 9: Poland: ‘If we don't elect the President, the country will plunge into chaos’. Download here.
Chapter 10: Between mitigation and dramatization: The effect of the COVID-19 crisis on populists’ discourses and strategies. Dowload here.
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DEMOS — Democratic Efficacy and the Varieties of Populism in Europe — is a three-year collaborative research project with 15 consortium members across Europe. DEMOS is funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 framework programme. The project, which kicked off in December 2018, has two chief objectives: better understand populism by investigating under-researched trends in existing scientific literature and contribute to addressing the challenge of populism through innovative and action research. Read more about DEMOS here.